Local people working in various housing support services for vulnerable people have expressed anger over fresh budget cuts, staff shortages and pay freezes.
Hundreds of local workers and service users are expected to be impacted by the cuts to the Supporting People programme funding.
Supporting People funding is used to staff and run a wide range of local organisations providing housing related support to homeless families and single people, disabled people, those fleeing domestic violence, people with mental health issues, people with alcohol and drugs problems, those sleeping rough, older people needing support, Travellers, young people deemed vulnerable and those leaving care, among others.
The project is funded by the Department for Communities and administered on its behalf by the Housing Executive. The Supporting People budget last year was £72.8 million, with an additional £3 million added during the year.
However the Housing Executive has contacted providers saying they have reviewed funding for a number of Supporting People schemes and “regrettably we have had to advise providers of a reduction to some budgets”.
The move has caused shock waves among those working in the sector locally, some of whom have not seen their pay increase in over a decade.
One support worker from a local independent living housing project and Unison member said that widespread uncertainty over service cuts, staffing levels and pay has seen morale plummet. “We feel quite undervalued as it is,” she said. “The people we are working with are vulnerable; have mental health problems, and this now puts the tin hat on it. They are just making our hard work harder and our job is not as secure as you would like to think it is.
“You try and stay professional and rise above it, but it does impact on your work.”
Another senior worker at a Derry organisation which provides accommodation for people who are homeless, have addiction, mental health and other complex problems, said:
“Some of our staff aren’t getting much more after tax than the people we are working with. That’s how little the wages are that they are earning.”
He expressed concerns that the cut has resulted in staff training being stopped at a time when the client group is changing and staff are tasked to deal with people a growing range of complex needs.
“You need to retrain the staff to deal with these issues. At the minute, not just because of the cuts, people are voting with their feet. We have staff leaving, we have been told we will run with bankers on zero hours contracts. While bankers are good, we need full-time staff and the full-time staff are working under more pressure.”
A Floating Support worker meanwhile said: “There’s worry among staff. We have a very high turn over, yet we are supposed to be about value for money. We have great feedback from people and I do not know what would happen if it wasn’t there. We work with a range of agencies and it’s much very much essential for people. That partnership work could suffer.”
A Housing Executive spokesperson said: “The Housing Executive can confirm that we have written to organisations who receive Supporting People funding regarding this year’s (2017/8) financial allocation. While the baseline Supporting People budget has been protected at £72.8m, there are a number of inescapable new financial commitments which need to be met. This has necessitated a review of the funding previously provided for a number of schemes and regrettably we have had to advise providers of a reduction to some budgets in the order of 5%.
“This reduction will not be applied to floating support schemes, where we have been able to maintain the budget at current levels.
“After careful consideration, we have deferred the impact of these proposed reductions, initially for the first three payment periods, to allow providers to plan and put appropriate arrangements in place to scale up or scale down service activities accordingly. This will also allow time for the broader budget situation to become clearer.
“We are very mindful that users of Supporting People funded services are some of the most vulnerable in society and we will work with providers to attempt to mitigate the impact of these funding reductions.”
The Department for Communities has said it has not reduced the Supporting People budget, but added that it recognised the Housing Executive was operating within a constrained budget.
A spokesperson said the grant allocation will be maintained at £72.8 million, adding: “This is the same amount that has been allocated to the programme each year since 2014. The Department has maintained this level of funding against a backdrop of financial pressures, and an additional £3 million was added in year during the last financial year (2016-17).
“The Department recognises that the Housing Executive, in common with all public service providers, has to operate within constrained budgets at the present time. In many cases this has involved year on year reductions in the amounts allocated to programmes and the Department has prepared contingency plans to operate within an overall reduction in its Budget for the present financial year.”